Nike SB loves to celebrate. Since its beginning in 2002, the brand’s skateboarding department has built a reputation as a source of the unique, well thought-out, and highly referential storytelling that propelled sneaker collecting to its current status in mainstream culture. In addition to early Dunk collaborations with skate companies like Chocolate and Zoo York and musicians like Iron Maiden and De La Soul, Nike SB quickly embraced a Hallmark attitude toward holidays, creating special edition Dunks for St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, Día de los Muertos, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and more. But while most of those holidays have enjoyed one or two-off Dunk recognition, Nike SB has spent the past decade and a half paying extra attention to one special day in mid-April—4/20.
The spring stoner holiday was created in the 1970s by a group of California teenagers who called themselves The Waldos and would meet daily after school to smoke at 4:20 in the afternoon. As with most facets of cannabis culture, the Northern California trend quickly spread nationwide. By the turn of the 21st century, April 20 had become a full-fledged holiday, spawning festivals, concerts, frequent name drops in music and movies, and countless unexcused absences at colleges and high schools across the country.
The Dunk, a staple Nike basketball silhouette from 1985, is beloved for its simple but lasting design and has served as the canvas for some of the most important shoes in sneaker history. The first 4/20 SB Dunks released in 2004, just two years after the Nike sub-brand’s inception. The Hemp Pack Dunks came in three styles, all constructed of raw, natural tan hemp fabric with a selection of mahogany red, bonsai green, and cascade blue Swoosh and accents differentiating the pairs. In the 17 years since, SB has released 10 additional 4/20 Dunk concepts, with one more left on the cutting room floor, making the stoner holiday the most frequently referenced motif tied to a specific date in Dunk SB history.
“The fact that they’ve been able to market these shoes with direct relation to weed suggests just how off the radar the SB program is compared to the rest of the company,” former pro skater and current owner of Standard Issue clothing Jimmy Gorecki says. “Could you ever imagine there being a 4/20 Nike Basketball shoe? Or a Purple Skunk football cleat?”
While Nike SB—and the Dunk in particular—crested another wave of outlandish hype and inflated resale value in 2020, SB has also spent the past few years expanding its conceptual reach. Now, more than just skate industry inside jokes and unsanctioned shoutouts to beer brands, animated TV dads, and international soccer teams, SB has added corporate collaborations with major companies like Ben & Jerry’s, the NBA, and 7-11 (well, almost). The latest era of overnight lineups and instant sellouts has come with a new dose of mainstream approval and admiration. But in a world where limited edition sneakers are seen by many as nothing more than a financial asset, the brand that built its reputation on colorways worthy of cease-and-desist letters still uses the annual stoner holiday to pay homage to skateboarding’s lifelong love affair with weed and to retain a continuous throughline of clever counter-culture creativity.
So how did Nike SB come to embrace stoner culture so hardily? It is largely thanks to two former Nike SB employees, the artist Todd Bratrud, and a brand culture steeped in the same carefree DIY mentality as its namesake sport.
Ahead of 4/20 in 2010, Bratrud, who had already designed successful Dunks like the Send Help, approached former Nike SB senior product line manager Shawn Baravetto with the idea of the Skunk Dunk High. Baravetto loved the idea and reached out to then fellow senior product line manager Stephen Pelletier, the self-described “stoner on staff and material nerd,” on the SB team at the time. Bratrud and Pelletier combined forces to turn the Dunk High into a nug of dank weed drenched in blended shades of fuzzy green suede with a purple check and a dazed and confused skunk drawing on the insole. The Skunk Dunk was an obvious nod to the sweet leaf in an era before the legalization green rush took hold.
“[The Skunk Dunk] was the first 4/20 drop that we had to be careful with legal,” Baravetto says now. “I had to send it off to legal and the response I got was something like, ‘So the skunk… could you make him less… sick looking?’”
After Bratrud made a few minor adjustments to the skunk’s bloodshot eyes, the shoe reached skate shops and became an instant classic, sparking an almost yearly Dunk celebration with release dates and narratives based on the high holiday—without any explicit approval from Nike brass, of course.
“Other departments at Nike dedicated April to Easter and so for us, it was a way to stand out and be creative,” Pelletier says. “What’s the old saying? It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission.”
“Sandy Bodecker [Nike’s former VP of special projects and the guiding hand behind Nike SB] had our backs, and in that era, they put up a little forcefield around us at SB,” Baravetto continued. “We would do concept, design, and samples in-house and then talk to the regional reps and do presentations for the skate shop owners to tell them the in-depth stories about the shoes, and the Dunks would hit blogs and shops before anyone outside of SB even saw the designs.”
In 2011, Bratrud, Pelletier, and Baravetto collaborated on the Cheech & Chong Dunk, with a bandana and flannel print designed to represent the perma-stoned 1970s comedians and a tearaway white canvas upper that revealed a grassy green suede underlayer meant to mimic the unraveling of a joint. Creative sneakerheads burned through the canvas with lighters to create a half-smoked look. Like most of the early referential projects at SB, no one had contacted Cheech or Chong for their blessing. So when Pelletier was called into his boss’s office the Monday after the sellout 4/20 release, he was expecting the worst.
“I got to work and the first person I see is John Martin [former Nike SB creative director] and all he says is, ‘Dude, we have a problem,’ and pulls me into his office,” Pelletier says. “At that point, I’m already worried, and once I’m sitting down the first thing he says is ‘I got a call from Mark Parker [former Nike CEO] this morning, and he’s not exactly happy about the Cheech & Chong Dunks.’ So now he’s watching me squirm and sweat bullets and follows that with, ‘And, I got a call from Mr. Chong’s legal representation.’ At this point, I’m totally freaking out and start rambling trying to figure out how we can fix this, until he stops me and says, ‘Turns out, Chong is pretty hyped on the shoe and all he wants is 30 pairs to raffle off for his charity foundation… and he wants to give you backstage passes to their next show in Portland.’ So instead of losing my job, I got to meet Cheech and Chong backstage. That worked out well.”
In the mid-2010s, Baravetto departed Nike altogether and Pelletier left the SB division to work in the brand’s soccer department. The SB team continued to release Dunks on 4/20, but the blueprint quickly lost its luster. In 2014 there was a Dunk Low and a Dunk High each decorated with the print of a classic Hacky Sack. In 2016, SB returned to hemp, this time with accents in red, green, and black. The 2017 4/20 release featured the less-than-stellar Galaxy Dunk.
When Pelletier returned to SB in the late 2010s, Bratrud had taken over the design of the 4/20 project once again, putting together a mid-top Dunk designed to represent a specific strain of weed, the famed sativa hybrid White Widow.
Bratrud agreed to confirm facts about his designs for this story, but denied the opportunity to speak at length about the 4/20 series. Bratrud is a legend in Midwest skateboarding and design circles and has always embraced cannabis in his graphic art, most notably in his work for the beloved, short-lived skate brand he founded, “The High 5.”
“When you have the opportunity to work with people that are as talented as Todd, your job is to figure out how to add to what they already do,” Baravetto says. “When they have ideas, just say yes. Let somebody try to break out of the mold. You can see it when it comes to the weed Dunks, Todd’s creativity just explodes because it’s something he cares about.”
For 2019’s 4/20 shoe, Pelletier realized a vision he had been imagining for five years: the Dog Walker Dunk. In addition to skate sneakers, Pelletier was responsible for the department’s now-defunct line of snowboard boots. And in the same way that many Nike SB-sponsored skaters like to enjoy a few puffs while filming for video parts, the top-tier snowboarders that Nike SB relied on to test and promote their boots had their own proclivities for pot. One such product tester, who shall remain nameless, was not only known for his skills on the slopes but also as a clandestine cannabis grower. The strain he was most famous for cultivating? An Oregon-bred hybrid called Dog Walker. Pelletier had been dreaming of a Dog Walker shoe since discovering his friend’s connection to the plant and spent years mapping out plans for the shoe’s colorway, materials, dog tag labeled “Sparky,” the doggie bag full of spare laces, and the shit-stained sole markings.
Bratrud designed the Strawberry Cough Dunk in 2020, which was delayed indefinitely as COVID-19 made coughing itself more taboo than weed. Not willing to let 4/20 pass without a dedicated sneaker, Bratrud and Pelletier pivoted and came together for an ultra-limited 10-year anniversary sequel to the Skunk Dunk, a 4/20-pair release of numbered Granddaddy Purple (GDP) Dunks decked out in varying shades of royal suede.
This year, amidst the latest round of continued—if slightly waning—Dunk SB fanaticism, Pelletier returned to the 4/20 theme with the Maui Wowie Dunk High. Keeping the tradition alive, the flowery Dunk has hemp accents on the Swoosh and tongue and subtle cannabis leaves mixed in with a lei print upper that will tear away to reveal fuzzy green suede and even more marijuana imagery.
For Baravetto and Pelletier, the 4/20 release date was not only a way to speak to stoners and sneakerheads, but also to skaters. Long before retired NBA and NFL athletes had their own legal strains, dispensaries, and CBD endorsements, the insulated mentality of the skateboard industry meant that skaters were some of the only professional athletes allowed to be public about and be celebrated for their cannabis consumption.
“Whether it’s recreational or medicinal, weed has always been a part of skateboarding,” says Gorecki, the former pro skater. “Even if you don’t smoke, if you get in the van on a skate trip, you’re getting a contact high before you hit the freeway. It was never a secret, it’s always been open.”
Many 4/20 Dunks feature a direct call back to the hidden dime bag pocket pioneered by Chad Muska’s first pro shoe on Circa. The stash pocket first appeared on the Skunk Dunk in 2010, and according to Pelletier, was personally tested and altered to ensure that each behind-the-tongue pouch could fit an eighth-ounce of bud. The stash pockets popped up again on the Cheech & Chong, White Widow, Dog Walker, GDP Dunks, and this year’s Maui Wowie.
And as America’s legal cannabis industry continues to grow, dispensaries from LA to Detroit are now embracing the same sidewalk lineups and limited release drops that have made sneaker culture famous. Instead of fresh Dunks though, eager customers camp overnight to get their hands on small-batch drops of new strains from dispensaries and brands like Cookies, Sherbinskis, BackpackBoyz, and more.
“The exclusivity and the hype factor of having what’s new and in-demand is a driving force of the cannabis market just like the sneaker industry,” Matteo Luciani, co-owner of the California cannabis brands The Rare and Parlay says. “When you see people waiting for sneaker drops and for strain drops, it’s the same type of people in both. There are consumers that honestly love the products and want to support the brands, hypebeasts that want to flex and feel relevant, and then the resellers looking to make a profit—but with weed, the secondary market means people buying as much as they can from dispensary drops and making it disappear on the black market. A lot of the resellers are flipping both sneakers and weed.”
Reselling exclusive shoes may not be illegal, but Dunk SB hype has routinely caused tension between skaters who would rather destroy the shoes and sneakerheads who prefer to treat them like high art. But when it comes to 4/20 Dunks, sneakerheads don’t need to have a kickflip in their arsenal to claim authentic obsession. After all, any Venn diagram mapping skate sessions and sneaker release campouts would surely feature a fat blunt in the middle.
Even in the hype-free blue and teal box eras, when Dunk SBs frequently sat on skate shop shelves for weeks if not months, 4/20 Dunk releases have always sold out instantly and fetched high prices on the secondary market. In 2010, when SB popularity was dwindling and the only notable Dunk releases were designed to welcome legendary skater Eric Koston to the team, the 4/20 Skunk Dunk inspired overnight lineups, and, according to Brooklyn Projects owner Dom DeLuca, sold out instantly, at 4:20 in the morning, for $420, retail. On the secondary market, the cheapest pair of Skunks currently available on StockX will run you $2,500. The Cheech & Chong Dunks from 2011—another down year for Dunk SBs on the whole—are fetching more than $1,500 at resale. Before SB popularity spiked again with the release of the second Diamond collaboration in November 2018, that year’s 4/20 release—the White Widow Dunk—had already helped prime the pump, flying out of shops immediately on release day. The mid, as they say, is always selling.
These days, both Baravetto and Pelletier have moved on from Nike. Baravetto departed in 2015 and has since started his own independent skate shoe brand, Proper Skateboarding. Pelletier parted ways with Nike earlier this year, with the Maui Wowie Dunk serving as one of his final projects at the company. With both men now gone, it is unclear if SB will continue the 4/20 series into 2022 and beyond. Still, no matter how many more stoner-friendly Dunks are produced or where the rollercoaster of Dunk SB hype lands next year, the 4/20 series will always be a reminder of the storylines and risk-taking that made Nike SB so engaging and popular in the first place.